Tue, Jul 13, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Border violence spills onto Mexican ranches

Farmers and ranchers are being squeezed on all sides by the presence drug gangs

By Christopher Sherman  /  AP, LAREDO, TEXAS

Mexican rancher Isidro Gutierrez watched with disgust as federal inspectors chalked a long stripe on his steer’s hindquarter. The animal could not be imported because its breed can be vulnerable to disease.

If inspections were still being done across the Rio Grande in Mexico, routine rejections like that would be just an inconvenience.

But drug violence in the border region has chased US cattle inspectors back to the US side, so Gutierrez has to pay brokers in both countries and hire a truck to take back rejected animals.

“It’s cheaper to kill him here,” Gutierrez said.

The drug violence along the US-Mexico border is now spilling into the region’s agriculture, threatening the safety of ranchers and farmers, slowing down what was expected to be the best harvest in years and raising the risk that some crops will rot in the fields.

Ranchers like Gutierrez have trouble getting their animals to market. Farmers who once toiled long hours in the fields now fear being attacked in the dark. Some are even being forced to pay protection money to keep from being kidnapped or having their harvest stolen.

EXTORTION

“There are thousands of producers who work all year to harvest the fruits of their labor, and it is the only income they have for the year, so we have to prevent extortion,” said Eugenio Hernandez Flores, the governor of Tamaulipas, the Mexican state bordering Texas from Brownsville to Laredo.

In late 2007, the Mexican military tried to curb violence by entering urban areas along the eastern end of the border, a region prized by drug traffickers for its valuable smuggling routes near Tamaulipas.

The stepped up military presence pushed more traffickers onto ranches and farms. In February, the fighting intensified after two allied gangs split and went to war with each other.

“It’s you against them, and you’re a person of work against people of crime,” said a cattle rancher who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. “In Tamaulipas, ranchers and farmers, we don’t have security with what we’re doing. We don’t know if tomorrow we’ll be able to keep working, or if tomorrow we’ll even come home from work.’’

Tamaulipas is a key point of entry for Mexican produce and livestock, with major border crossings in Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. The area’s top crop is sorghum, a grain used primarily for animal feed. Other large crops include corn, okra and cotton.

For six weeks this spring, gang violence closed US cattle inspection stations in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. That forced Mexican ranchers to transport their animals more than 160km to the northwest. The inspection sites reopened in May at temporary locations in the US.

Karla Regina Baeza, an import broker who counts Gutierrez among her clients, said she nearly went out of business when Laredo’s cattle import business shut down. Since imports resumed, she has regained only a few clients.

She used to import 15 to 20 truckloads of cattle per week, but in a four-week stretch from May to last month, she imported none.

Baeza has laid off staff and cut hours for those who remain. She joined a Mexican delegation to Washington last month to ask US Department of Agriculture officials to provide a full-time inspector and to move the inspections back to Mexico.

REDUCED WEIGHT

Not only do rejected steers have to be re-imported to Mexico, but the ones that make it through are worth less because they have lost weight, Baeza said. The temporary inspection site in Laredo does not have food or water, so the cattle spend several hours in transit to the scales without anything to eat or drink. In a business that pays by weight, that cuts into ranchers’ already slim margins, she said.

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